Title: Orville Hickman Browning to John McAllister Schofield, 22 June 1868
Date: June 22, 1868
Source: Transcribed from digital images or a microfilm reproduction of the original item. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.
Location: National Archives and Records Administration
Whitman Archive ID: nar.00573
Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang, Nima Najafi Kianfar, Kevin McMullen, and John Schwaninger
June 22, 1868.
Hon. J. M. Schofield,
Secretary of War.
An application has been made to the President for the pardon of one Isaac Owens, who was convicted of manslaughter by a military commission, sitting in March last, at Camden, in the State of South Carolina, and sentenced to five years imprisonment at hard labor in Fort Macon. Before reporting the views and advice of this office to the President, I have thought it expedient to request you to communicate with the commanding General of the military Reconstruction District in which the proceedings were had, with a view to fuller information of the facts,— and to procure the opinion of that officer as to the propriety of granting mercy in the premises.
The parties who sign the petition are said to be citizens of the highest respectability, and the respect in which they hold the gentlemen composing the commission appears in the following passage from the petition:
"Your petitioners do not intend, nor have they any desire, to reflect upon the members of the commission.—Indeed those of the undersigned who witnessed the proceedings, or were engaged in the defence, bear willing and cheerful testimony to the lofty courtesy, high bearing, deliberate consideration, and patient hearing evinced by the gentlemen of whom it was composed—and they shall say nothing in this connection not apparent on the face of the proceedings."
The petitioners, however, declare that no necessity, growing out of the inefficiency or partiality of the State Judiciary, existed to justify a resort to military justice. They say:
"It should further be observed that the necessity of a trial by military commission is indignantly repelled by the defence, as it is by all of us, and proof of any act or sentiments of our people or courts requiring such intervention, is defied. No courts on earth have a purer record than those of South Carolina, and no just reason can be assigned for such intervention. It is confidently believed and averred that if two whites, felons, malefactors, and outlaws, had fallen under the same circumstances, it scarce would have caused a regret on their account, and none would have deemed the law violated, or society outraged—and we sincerely believe that the regret which all good citizens experienced at this event, the great excitement which stirred the freedmen to acts of violence, and to a partisan persecution of Isaac Owens, and the conviction itself, all resulted from the unfortunate political condition of the country."
It is also represented in the petition that Owens is a man of family, his children being numerous and small, in care of an aged grandmother, his wife being dead; that he is a very poor man; that his character is and was shown upon the trial to have been that of a quiet, orderly, peaceable and inoffensive man. The circumstances of the homicide are thus set forth in the petition:
"From these proceedings, it will appear that the said Isaac Owens was regularly in charge of said William Winkle and York Owens, two freedmen, regularly charged as felons by proper affidavit and warrant, and that they had acknowledged themselves guilty of the capital felony of burglary, and of a degree of arson only a little short of capital felony,— that peacefully, quietly, orderly, inoffensively, even good-naturedly, he had conducted the said prisoners fifteen miles and was in the act of delivering them into the jail, within the jail yard, when they attempted to escape, evidently, as far as can be deduced by the evidence and the death of one of the felons almost surely resulted from that violence, and by the hands of his companion in guilt. The accused, Isaac Owens, shot the other, a violent outlaw, as he was escaping, as it is submitted it was his right and duty to do according to law. And your petitioners believe and submit that a conviction would not have resulted before any civil tribunal where a jury of the vicinage was empannelled, before a court appreciating and fully recognizing the laws of the land."
The petitioners also add:
"It will be observed that our people are so subdued that poor Owens had two freedmen of his posse 'to see that freedmen got justice'— and on the occasion of the killing, when the infuriated mob of freedmen were about to take Isaac Owens away to kill him, our white citizens only interfered by kind and persuasive words."
I recommend that a copy of this communication be forwarded to General Canby, with such instructions as you may think appropriate as a basis of a Report in the premises from that intelligent officer.
Respectfully, your obedient servant,
Attorney General adinterim